08/01/2014 09:34 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2014

Voices From the Virtual Street: What Does Public Education Mean to You?

I am a product of public education. I was raised in central Illinois, and I had teachers who not only served as role models, coaches, and mentors, but many who have become life-long friends.

My public school years gave me a stellar education -- one which was rooted in creative projects, exploration through my own curiosity, and unique field trips. These experiences helped me to develop not only cognitively, but also socially and emotionally. I belonged to the marching band, numerous sports teams, and took the opportunity to volunteer in my community through the many clubs and activities my public school sponsored. Public education gave me a solid foundation for who I have become today.

After attending the rally in Washington D.C. last week, where I witnessed parents, teachers, and students from across this nation band together and use their voices to speak up for public schools, I began thinking more deeply about public education and what it means to this country. Public education, in my opinion, is one of the greatest gifts to our youth -- but only if this gift is given to them with their unique emotional, mental, and developmental needs in mind.

What does public education mean to you? I posed this question in the virtual streets, and answers poured in from across the country.

Student Voices
"We have no variety now. Public education should offer a plethora of learning styles, so that each individual can decipher their talents and interests." --Luke D., 7th grade student

"Public education should be fun and let children play with their classmates." --Bryce F., student (age 7)

"Public education is like a community where you have friends from all different cultures. The public schools keep those communities together and they support one another. And, if you get rid of the public schools, you get rid of that community." --Mykala F., student (age 12)

"I like going to the playground at school. I like writing and painting, and I do that at school." --Hunter M., student (age 5)

"When it's school time, you go there and sit down and listen to your teacher. We play at centers with friends." --Tristan M., student (age 5)

"It makes me happy to go to school, because I get to meet friends and have great teachers. It makes me sad and angry to have to take so many tests though."It's just not fair." --Rhiannon V., 3rd grade student

"Public education is giving everyone--no matter ethnicity, gender, race, or religious affiliation--an equal opportunity to receive the tools and knowledge they need in order to succeed as individuals and members of society. Nowadays there seems to be a constant concentration on the scores of standardized tests; as a result, it is displeasing to see that schools are at battle between budgets and providing the opportunity for their students to gain a quality and equal education." --Dzanna S., student

"Public education means to give everyone an equal chance to learn." --Michael R., student

"The best part of school is when my teacher is good and seeing my friends. The worst part of school is a lot of tests." --Jack K., student (age 12)    

"I love my public school system because it doesn't only teach us academics needed for later years, but knowledge that we will need forever. My public school teaches us to give our best every single day, and to never give up and keep trying. I see everyday how hard my teachers work for me, my sister and all of our friends. I'm angry at the way they have been treated by the U.S. Government!" --Olivia M., student

Parent, Teacher, and Principal Voices
"Public education is a free and appropriate education for ALL students. It is teaching the WHOLE child through creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and social justice." --Janet G., parent and teacher

"It means watching my son suffer unnecessarily, preparing everyday at 3:00 p.m. to hear the struggle. Public education + my son = anxiety and stress." --Carolee D., parent

"Public education is a necessity and a moral and ethical responsibility.  Its a benefit to a community to have its citizens educated and contributing.  Public education is the foundation of American democracy where everyone is educable and valuable." --Merry T., principal

"Public education is not a business, or the simple transfer of information. It's a complicated set of personal relationships between learner and teacher, between learners, and within communities that enrich and ennoble us all." --Mitchell R. Ph.D., professor

"Public education is nothing less than the chance for kids to realize their dreams. It offers kids the toe-hold they need to fight their way to success--however they define it. What kids do with that chance is up to them, but public education is that essential chance." --Tanya L., teacher and parent

"To me, public education means community involvement. It means parents, teachers and school administrators supporting each other and making decisions together about how to educate the children of their community."--Brenda S., teacher

"As a Global History teacher at one of the last large comprehensive public high schools in The Bronx, I think of public education as the front line of civilization. For most of my students, it is the last opportunity they will have in their lives to develop a historical perspective on the world they inhabit. It is also the last chance many will have for acquiring those basic literacy skills so necessary for navigating the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a complex society." --Matthew C., teacher

"Public education is our nation's greatest hope for progress, equality, and peace. Our multicultural nation comes together in public schools, where we learn together to get along with all kinds of people, to listen with empathy, to express our thoughts creatively, to relate present day struggles with history, and to meet the world's many challenges." --Dr. Alison D., professor

"This is about democracy. Public education empowers communities to shape their own children's upbringing.  We shape by voting for school board, voting for budget, taking the microphone, and addressing the neighborhood about program and policy. It is direct democracy. The further we stray from the public model, the more control parents yield to entities that are not accountable to community values." --Robert C., teacher and parent

"Public education is the promise that ALL children have a right to a free and appropriate education, and that every community must have schools that are funded equitably to meet the diverse needs of its children. No public funds should be funneled to privately owned schools that filter, discriminate, or make private profits on public dollars. All schools receiving public funds should be held to the same standards as public schools with regard to transparency- including finances, operating procedures, and civil rights protections." --Terry K., retired teacher and parent advocate

"Public education holds the hope of a successful future for our nation. The potential of my impact, as a public school teacher, is limitless. My craft has the power to change lives, and I do not take that responsibility lightly. I have a moral obligation to serve as a teacher in my community. Investing in education is like investing in the future of our country." --Amanda G., teacher

"Public education should give every student a chance to excel within their learning intelligence style so that they can become successful citizens and lifelong learners within their career choice; this cannot be measured with standardized tests." --Lori G., teacher

"Public education is the cornerstone of democracy. It is the opportunity for everyone to become more." --Karen A., activist educator

What does public education mean to me? It means that it belongs to the public-- parents, teachers, and students who make decisions for children. It means that it belongs to the taxpayers who fund and have a say how the children in their communities are taught. It means that it doesn't belong to a handful of wealthy people who think they can make decisions for other people's children and what is right for their communities." --Marla K., teacher and parent activist

"Public education means building relationships and convincing a child he or she is important to this world. It is five meals in a seven day week for some of my students. Public education is why I grew up wanting to be a teacher. I need to pass along the same hope for a better life that was passed along to me so many years ago." --Robyn F., teacher

"Whether or not they "won the lottery" with the situation into which they were born, public education is the vehicle for all children to access life's opportunities. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, learning abilities or disabilities, family situation, neighborhood circumstances, or economic background, education for all provides the freedom and capability for each child to pursue his or her dreams. Public education provides fulfillment of one of the most basic civil and human rights." --Jonathan M., teacher

"Public education is the most significant counterbalance we have to avoid the dangers and pitfalls inherent in a capitalistic society. When functioning correctly, it provides equity where inequities would otherwise emerge and fester." --Lawrence G., teacher and parent

"Public education should encourage ALL children to become curious, lifelong learners. It should provide a collaborative space for children to develop their individual talents at their own pace AND a supportive space for them to learn from their failures. Public schools are the heart of a community." --Alison M., parent

"Public education should mean that my daughter's individual developmental needs come first before the needs of corporate interests, or the arbitrary needs of competition between other states or countries. It also means that I shouldn't need to enter a lottery, or be wealthy in order for her to get that stress free, arts filled, subject balanced, child centered education." --Tanya HB, teacher and parent

"Public education is opportunity.  Access to a free and appropriate education means that regardless of the circumstances of birth or chance, a student can have choices about who he or she will become. Public education ensures that choices aren't reserved for those who can afford them." --Kendra A-B., parent and teacher